Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Hear the Bells on New Years Too.

After the stillness, there are the bells. Bells give off light, did you know that? I think it is light passing on to our souls through sound.

I've always associated the continuous peeling of bells with New Year's Eve. It was then that my Grandpa August Johnson would climb the rickety stairs to the bell town of the little, white country church where I grew up and pull the bell ropes. They would be rung exactly one thousand, nine hundred and whatever odd year of the twentieth century we had arrived at that stroke of midnight. One for every year since the birth of Christ. He took a great pleasure in it, for New Year's eve was also his birthday.

There is something about bells that is hopeful -- filled with the light of both joy and sadness, don't you think? Bells ring for occasions that are personal celebrations – birth, death, marriage, anniversaries. And they sound for common celebrations and shared grief – the death of a president, the marking of a national tragedy like 911, the end of a war, the landing of men on the moon. Tonight and tomorrow, they mark a brand new year, a new decade, a new turn of the page.

This year, this year...where we pass from the 000 years to the century's teenage decade, I remember the peel of the bells of Paris. Because, for me, Paris counted as one of the five wonderful high marks of our family's year. And there was something about the respect accorded bells there that I wish we paid to bells here.

Bells. The carillon sound came from every quarter...on the half hour, the hour and to mark particular points of the day. They say that the bells of Paris rung on August 25, 1944, the day of the liberation of Paris – like they had not wrung since Bastille Day. What must that have been like to hear the banging, clanging, tin-tinnabulating echo sounding across the rooftops and rolling down the boulevards on a day like that one?

We weren't even there during a special time of year and we could hear them through out the Arrondissements. Here, some of my favorites – the throaty sound of the bells in the 200 ft tall bell towers of Notre Dame. The higher, lighter peel from the bells of the Church of st. Eustache at Les Halles (the church of the market workers). The deep heavenly tone of the bells in the campanile of the Sacré-Coeur where hangs the nineteen ton La Savoyarde. The tingling peel of the bells – in an acoustically perfect echo, of the bells of Sainte Chapelle, completed in1248 and still called the most beautiful church in Paris.

Bells rang from La Madeleine in the Paris financial district and at St. Suplice, the “Chapel of the Angels” in the Latin quarter , where they blend with the sounds of the bells at La Sorbonne, founded in 1253. And bells hold sway over the Eglise du Dôme, over Napoleon Bonaparte's tomb, although they didn't ring that I heard while I was there.

Still, for me, the dearest bells are the poor simple bells in the bell tower of the East Immanuel Lutheran Church. Those bells Grandpa rung told the sweet story of our family's sojourn in America – as he was the first one born in his family in America. I cannot say whether he rang the old year out, or the new year in, but this truth as Madeline l'Engel once pointed out, I do know; “a new year can begin only because the old year ends.”

Happy 2010!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In the Stillness there is Light.

If you're looking for a treatise on the history and customs of Christmas, this year, you need to go back to my December, 2008 blogs. Go ahead, just scroll back there. You'll find customs and history and the reason why I have always felt that the people of the north, my ancestors, had real reasons to celebrate even before they became Christians.

This is the time for parties and eggnog and decorating. For preparing gifts and making the special holiday foods. For wearing ridiculous holiday ties and sweaters and drinking too much. For office parties and neighborhood gatherings and attending more events in a single week than should be human. It's noisy and stressful and mostly materialistic. I don't know about you, but come December every year, all of this rushing around gets me rather melancholy. Until this year I'm not sure I figured out why that is.

But this year I've been contemplating that which is the opposite of what most of us experience; stillness. Stillness has a relationship to how we see celebration, service, humanity and destiny. I truly think that the spiral path of stillness can help us find and follow our own light.

Don't get me wrong -- I love a party as well as the next person. And being a marketing refuge, I have no business putting down all that spending and wrapping! It's just that in all the secular goings-on I feel a disconnect. As if all of this is just a frantic cover-up, a poor replacement, for the light that makes me an authentic being. Do you?

Jacquelyn Small has noted that “We are not human being trying to be spiritual. We are spiritual beings trying to be human.”

With all the noise and rushing around at this time of year – how can we meld the human and spiritual halves of ourselves? A few weeks ago attending a morning church service, I was reminded that stillness and silence are relatives. That “silence is the cessation of sound: stillness is the cessation of movement.” Interestingly, stillness appears to be something that both the Good Book and most therapists advocate to put all your parts back together; that it is good to let the “still, small voice” of calm take over sometimes.

At this time of year as we anticipate what is to come on Christmas day, it might be good, as Psalm 37:7 says, “to be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”

Stillness is hard when much of what is around us is rushed and frantic and the news is dark. I know, because I've tried practicing stillness. Like so many folks, I could use a job and an income and a good health care bill and just some hopeful news. In an ADHD world, stillness takes discipline.

But I have made a discovery about stillness. It helps me see more clearly, no matter how dark the world is around me. As Eleanor Roosevelt expressed it ~ “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra